Saturday, November 3, 2007

Soul, soul, an apple or two...

As a boy growing up in Northumberland this season and time of the year held several significant and symbolic rituals, very different from the custom of the ‘trick or treat’ here in the United States. Perhaps the most basic was the veneration of the humble apple, whose crop surfaced toward the late fall, my favorite was the ‘Cox Orange Pippin’ a small but incredibly sweet and wild taste. On this dark night by a crackling coal-fire we played a simple game of ‘apple-dooky’ which involved attempting to take an apple out of a bowl of water only using our teeth. This of course is purely Celtic in origin; the water representing the passage-way to the otherworld, and the apple being the ‘isle of apples’ of whom Manannan Mac Lyr was the resident chief deity. The Gaelic heaven is perhaps better known in Arthurian legend as ‘Avalon.’ My mother would also bake huge 1lb apples stuffed with brown sugar, nuts and raisins, cinnamon and brandy. And there was also the candied apples covered in hard caramel which we licked until our tongues were sore. It is said that the apple was the customary payment to ensure the safety of a soul in ‘spiritual transition’ to the otherworld. Thus in ages past groups of children would go around the village, knocking on each neighbor’s door and sing a soul-plaint in return for an apple;

“Soul, soul, an apple or two
If you haven’t an apple a pear will do,
One for the Crow-Queen, two for the lost-soul,
And three for the Ferry-man
Who carries us all…”

The Great-Queen ‘Morrigan’ in the shape of a Crow is the one who consumes our strips our decaying body of its flesh, and the Ferry-man guides our spirit across the vast dark ocean of death. Then at school we would weave small crosses out of white milk-straws, originally these were constructed from the left-over sheaves of wheat after the harvest and called ‘parshells’ in the Irish tradition. Very similar to the St. Brigit’s cross created at Beltaine. Hung up over the lintel of the front door they were said to protect the home from the unwanted attentions of mischievous spirits.

Pumpkins were unknown in Britain, we used turnips which were hollowed out and used as lanterns with a candle inside, and left by the window to illuminate the cold bitter darkness outside. The leftover orange-flesh was boiled, mashed and served with some ham for the evening meal.

Discarding the incorrect assumption that Samhain was a old and dangerous God of the harvest we are left only with its ancient conception as the ‘new-year.’ A potent transitionary period from the light half of the year into the darkness of winter;

"Dhe, beanaich dhomh an la ur,

Nach do thuradh dhomh roimhe riamh:

Is ann gu beannachadh do ghnuis,

Thug thu'n uine seo dhomh, a Dhia..."

("God, bless me to this new day, never vouchsaved to me before: it is to bless thine own presence, thou hast given me this time, O God..." - Carmina Gadelica).

Like the wild Adder we shed our skin for the last time before being enveloped in the Crow’s wing of hibernation. This season invites renewal through introspection, reflection and repose, quiet solitude in a shrouded mist of dreams. The Black winds of the North invite us to harbor a small ember of hope through to Beltaine in the Spring. It is through the medium of darkness, the ‘dark night of the soul’ that we can realize our hidden potential; the brilliant sub-conscious light that lies beyond the boundaries of our physical existence, one warmed not by the sun but by a deeper sense of joy, life, love, creativity and wisdom. Like the oldest creation myths our seed is nursed under a primordial blanket in preparation for the fullest sense of blossoming.

Another key festival we celebrated at this time of year was ‘Guy-Fawkes Day’ on November the fifth. In the post-Elizabethan age this was the commemoration of the arrest and execution in 1605 of a group of individuals who attempted to destroy the British crown and Parliament:

Please to remember the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder Treason and Plot.
We know no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Holla boys! holla boys! huzza-a-a!
A stick and a stake, for King George’s sake,
A stick and a stump, for Guy Fawkes’s rump!
Holla boys! holla boys! huzza-a-a!

This ritual involved building a pyramid shaped structure out of collected pieces of old wood scraps, and on the night setting fire to it. But, before this a figure of a man would be constructed out of an old suit and stuffed with newspaper, with a face and hat. A week before the ‘burning’ we would take the old ‘Guy’ out with us on a small cart and ask for ‘pennies in his name’ and all of this was concluded on the fifth, when we threw his mortal frame into the burning fire. We set off fireworks, roast potatoes in the fire and sing and dance around the flames in a festival which seems strangely like the Hindi ‘Festival of lights.’

This is a highly charged event that has absolutely shocked many foreign observers, but its origins are clearly in the Celtic-Pagan past; both Caesar and Strabo recall the Celtic tribal tradition of creating a ‘wicker-man’ out of old branches, straw and wood, and then setting fire to it in a specific ritual as an offering to the Gods. The only deity I can identify within this context is ‘Cromm Cruach’ (or ‘Crooked-Head’) in the Irish tradition; a god of the harvest whose feast day is on July 28th. He is personified as the ‘sheaf of wheat’ the agricultural spirit of the land, and after the harvest of Lughnasadh he must be symbolically burned like stubble to return to the earth, as a source of nourishment and enrichment. As a patron of the harvest he is sometimes accompanied by a writhing snake and a sharp scythe like the mysterious ‘Grim Reaper.’

“It is I who nourish the shoot, the root,
Who feeds all that grows from the earth,
I suffer no decay,
I am the heavy ear of corn and the ripe branch,
I am the trembling of the earth,
Deeply lodged in the clay…”

At this time of year we are thoughtful of both life and death, our ancestors and ancient relations, in recollection of their sacrifices and the work they committed themselves too in order for our lives to blossom now in the present. We also join in the delight of our children swirling, dancing and singing around our lives, with a deep desire that they will grow and mature and soon become themselves the wardens of this beautiful earth... let the advice to the youth be an illuminating one; respect, honor, creativity, passion, and absolute faith. This is a perfect time to address our limitations, investigate shortcomings, explore self-imposed restrictions and dive deeper into our pool of existence to retrieve those skills we need to be even more than we could be before.

As we settle tonight in this season for sleep let us spend a moment of reflection in silence; with each breath allow the sacred Earth spirit infuse our souls with calm waves of harmony, dispelling the knots of anger, frustration or turbulence... and allow us to navigate the dream-world with gilded delight, to awake refreshed and ready for a new day and a new year of challenges. This is a beautiful time to make ourselves holy and sacred with a traditional Scottish ‘sain’ or rite of purification with smoldering sage or the more traditional juniper:

I purify my being with the three whispers;


The birth of Originality
The Life of Inspiration,
The Sleep of Imagination…

Great Path

Creator Within and Without, All-Encompassing

Heart, Soul and Mind

At one

In the Shrine of my life

Preserved from the eye of Dawn till Twilight;
And through the darkest night of forgetting.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Zen Process of Uncovering Self Deception...

Meditation and illumination cannot teach a child, it can only make one. It is like a sword, a sharp and distinct bolt of lightening that cuts a person into two parts and of the space that remains; this is it! Without notions and only being, un-graspable and unknowing, not perceived by normal senses or existing... it has no name, form or function and yet wholly everything: the sum total of being. It is not attempting to navigate through a room filled with dense smoke, nor trying to focus upon a thing, but becoming the smoke and the room, experience and understanding. Finally, not sensing ourself as a container but containing all things... and then when all of this seems like a dream, of forgetting our self and being the child enveloped by zen.

How is 'what' not possible? 'What' is the distinction we create between our self and other things. It is a protection rather than an explanation. It is a terrible God that prevents our complete dissolution from an accumulated identity. We are therefore slaves to this perception of color, we struggle to maintain these confining bonds and create yet more chains to justify our existence through comparison. True compassion is not weighing the quality of something or improving it to our own standard, but truly an identification which is the same as a simple act of breathing with everything: a total absorption of all the energy, and in this process our 'what' disappears and dissolves as one tremendous wave like a blind, ecstatic cry of joy; un-contained and all-embracing.

Desire is only a form created within ourselves. It has little to do with that object we wish to embrace. In the action of desire our whole being succumbs to fragmentation like an exploding grenade or a shattered mirror that comes to reflect our self in a thousand myriad forms. In this way we are totally incapable of 'one-ness.' With a thousand heads we are completely drowned in a crazy, uncoordinated mass of individual voices screaming. We are forcing our-self to make constant decisions, to define, qualitate, select and categorize. To charge one with more importance over another and the many. Every moment of our time is thus filled with confusion and abstract emptiness. Perception becomes separated senses devolved into base survival; a struggle to manipulate the universe to our own demands, the strongest and the weakest, light and dark, hot and cold, birth and death... for ever.

Thus desire is the corpse that we make love to in our minds, a blind act of necrophilia which only satisfies the itching rash of a fever. In a genuine act of passion there is a complete symbiosis that incorporates all of existence; where two beating hearts are transformed into one complete breath. In one naked perception there are no distinctions or distractions. We embody all differentiations and transcend both positive and negative, assuming all forms and become an energy without a name that is pure and sparkling. This is not seeking a solution to a predefined dilemma but realizing the 'I am You.' This is the burning in one flame that illuminates the darkness surrounding us, and questions fall away in direct experience.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Book Review: Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe by H. Ellis and Davidson

This book is mainly concerned with the format and content of pre-Christian Scandinavian religion, using Celtic and Germanic equivalents as a means of reference, support and comparison. I first became aware of Scandinavian culture during my schooldays in North-East British Northumberland, and the lessons were mainly concerned with depicting the savagery of the Viking raiders, the terrible ‘dragon-headed’ long-ships, and their rape, pillage and plunder of civilized Anglo-Saxon Christian settlements. This image of barbaric ice-warriors filled my imagination until the mid-eighties when excavations and archeological discoveries at Coppergate in York revealed many interesting and highly cultured facets of Viking life in the early medieval period. Much of these discoveries and subsequent research was installed as a permanent museum now called ‘Jorvik Viking Centre.’ A decade later I was fortunate enough to visit Bergen in Norway and experience Scandinavian culture and history first hand, the Bryggens Museum is a showcase of finds from the earliest settlements and includes ceramics, rune inscriptions, artifacts and the remnants of a principally shipping and commercial society up to the Middle Ages. ‘Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe’ provided me with a carefully researched and detailed account of the spirituality of the Scandinavian peoples, and which brought to maturity all my previous thoughts and experiences, to an understanding which gives considerable credit to those communities for their important cultural legacy in Western Europe.

Davidson has used the medieval literature, myths and legends of Iceland and Ireland as the primary reference source for this book, in combination with archeological research papers and sources, and iconography of pre-Christian Western European culture. Her main inspiration appears to come from many scholars of Celtic history including Nora Chadwick, Kenneth Jackson and Anne O’Sullivan, although the principle thesis of the this research is prompted by Georges Dumezil (1898-1986) the religious historian who specialized in the analysis of Indo European civilization, who asks; “Is it possible to fit these Norse and Irish legends into a general pattern of Indo-European religious beliefs, extending back far into prehistory?” This question it seems, is the answer that Davison was seeking to explore within her work, and she does so with imagination, clear perception and a satisfying conclusion. With a broad yet defining sweep she manages to assess and investigate seven principle areas of interest; sacred places and sanctuaries, feasting and sacrifices, warriors, codes and rites and battle, land spirits, deities and ancestors, prophetic knowledge, divination and the priestly caste, cosmology and the other worlds, and finally the ruling gods, goddesses and divine pantheons.

Davidson begins with the earliest sources of a broad Indo-European culture, the archeological sources of Halstatt and La Tene circa 800 BCE to 200 CE, and follows through her study to approximately 1000 CE when the Scandinavian Vikings began to convert to Christianity. She employs free use and comparison of geographical sites, archeology, linguistics, cultural, social, artistic and spiritual characteristics, and the dynamics of the anarchical tribal-feudalism of early European society to successfully accomplish the study.

I grew up within a traditional working class British community. There, the cultural inheritance was composed of remnants of ancient and medieval thought whose pattern and dynamic has evolved little beyond the concept of ‘indentured servitude.’ Tribalism still exists albeit in the form of soccer, and beyond the boundaries of the town there still exists a fear, a dreaded chaos, of foreigners and disorganization. Even when I was a lad in the seventies there was a strong sense of home, a hearth and odd yet valid seasonal customs whose origins may be traced back a thousand years. From a curious perspective, even a psychological one, this volume (and others like it) helped me to understand my background, language, beliefs and culture from a traditional point, and subsequently how those traits still influence my perception and actions today. It is not a book that changed my life, but illuminated facets of it and helped me in understanding myself more.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Gentle Bee Shaman: Keeper of the Pollen Path

Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt a marvelous error;
That I had a beehive here inside my heart.
And the golden bees were making white combs
And sweet honey from my past mistakes.

-Antonio Machado

The Shamanic spiritual path of the anthropologist Simon Buxton developed slowly over a 13 year apprenticeship with a European Bee-Keeper. During that time he established the British branch of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, and The Sacred Trust; an organization which guides those seeking native spiritual traditions. His sharp and enlightening path is detailed in his book; ‘Shamanic Way of the Bee: Ancient Wisdom and Healing Practices of the Bee Masters.’

I find this a strange, beautiful but not altogether surprising occupation. The ‘Pollen Path’ is certainly mystical, yet based on practical elements and possesses a sound purpose. The honey bee and all its relatives have been exchanging information with humans since the beginning of our time, they themselves are prehistoric, having been here for at least 55 million years since the Cenozoic era. Within the concept of healing and nutrition we are indebted to this marvelous creature, their beneficence is without doubt. Buxton’s initiation into this secret world came when as a nine your old boy he succumbed to a fatal infection of encephalitis, yet was miraculously saved by an Austrian bee-keeper Shaman. We need only consider the various healing agents of the hive to understand; honey, pollen, propolis, wax and royal jelly to understand the immense potential. I myself recently created a successful skin healing salve with bee’s wax and lemon balm for a particularly bad irritation. This is animal-spirit medicine at its most potent; traditional practitioners even used the bee stings as a form of acupuncture!

In medieval Ireland there was a saying; that one of the three most difficult things to understand was the work of bee’s (obair na mbeach) and as such were closely connected to the mysterious and magical priestly functions of the Druids. Legal restrictions were imposed as to who kept bee hives and who was entitled to the seemingly divine produce of honey, but especially mead; reserved for warriors and nobles. Throughout Europe, especially amongst monastic orders the bee was not only symbolic of the soul, death and rebirth but also of the Virgin Mary herself; the queen bee of heaven. Amongst the Native Navajo the pollen path is sacred, representing the very source of life and incorporates a ritual as a way of envisioning the center of existence. They sing;

“O beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty to my right, beauty to my left, beauty above me, beauty below me, I am on the Pollen Path.”

It is a journey to understanding the deepest aspects of the self, to the hive of the heart, to listen to the constant drone of the song of creation, and extract the honey-like essence of our mind and bodies. Pollen is the substance of the earth, the spirit, the cosmos; truly the finest blessing.

As a totem animal the bee possesses the powers of a higher consciousness, prophetic dreams, industriousness, diligence, productivity, creativity, immense sexual attraction and can act as a divine messenger. Like the Queen Bee in the Grimm fairy tale, this creature has the capacity to restore order, life and love; a balm blessing on the lips of the ‘forever young.’

One of my favorite stories is that of Saint Modomnoc; as a young lad of the O’Neil clan in Ireland he longed for a spiritual life, life his relative St. Columba. So one day he set off across the sea to serve and study as a monk in the monastery with St. David in Wales. Modomnoc was given charge of the bee hives, and diligently he cared for them like they were his own children; even planting the sort of flowers they liked best in the garden. The bees likewise became enamored of the monk, constantly following him around, buzzing about his head singing fair melodies in an enchanting manner.

Soon it came to the end of his time their, and after his ordination he packed up and prepared to return to Ireland; bidding farewell to his bees. Every time he boarded the ship the bees would fly after him, not even twice but thrice times in a row. He tried all means to persuade the creatures to remain in the Welsh monastery, but all without success until eventually St. David himself told Modonmoc to take them with him. He eventually settled in Bremore near Dublin and built there a spiritual dwelling which soon became known as ‘The Church of the Beekeeper.’

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Garden of the Bears...

“I am the black bear, around me see the light clouds extending. I am the black bear, around me see the light dew falling………” – Pima Indian medicine song.

As we slowly drift into fall it is worth reflecting on this season from the perspective of the majestic and noble bear; those of us lucky enough to live close too or near mountains or forests will experience this creature at first hand this time of year. The gradual approach of winter alerts the creature to the necessity of building up its weight for a long hibernation, and it is frequently found scavenging and roaming amidst human settlements for tasty morsels. The relationship between bear and human is a long epic, full of myths, fantasy, amazing adventure and struggle. And so, before our tired eyes begin to falter before the slowly fading Harvest moon I will recount some of the great legends of our gentle forest cousin.

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago (believe it or not) the mighty and majestic bear once roamed all across Europe, dwelling in the dark forests of oak and ash… free and plentiful. It was the inspiration for many legends and tales amongst the Celts and Scandinavians, its strength and stamina was imitated through heroic deeds of valor. In ancient pagan Norway there were specialized bands of warriors called ‘Beserkers’ or ‘bear-shirts’ because they donned the hides and furs of the bear, adorned themselves with their teeth, claws and bones, and were always the first furious combatants in battle… invoking the strength and ferocity of their totem beast. Such fearless warriors were in high demand as body-guards for the nobility and persons of the highest rank. The Norwegian term bjorn was one of the titles of Thor, the mighty god of thunder.

Fionna MaCleod recounts an ancient Irish Celtic legend of the Pole Star; the youthful Finn mac Cumhail went bear hunting beyond the western mountains. Together with his two faithful hounds Luath and Dorch they discovered an immense bear and chased him all the way to the icy North-lands to an everlasting rainbow, across which the bear climbed. It was met in the middle by the two hounds and all seemed to have brought to a conclusion when it crashed to the ground, mortally wounded it seemed… but not! It started running again. The ‘All-Father’ the Great Creator watching this spectacle from the heavens decided this escapade was more than enough and so he hoisted the bear by means of a rope noose into the pitch dark sky where it raced around Arcturus the ‘North Star’ or ‘Northmen’s Torch.’ Finn didn’t give up, with the hero’s leap he mounted the rainbow, then again onto the hill of heaven and gave eternal chase to the divine beast. Here the magnificent northern lights we see are said to be the spears of Finn, forever being hurled at the Great Bear… forever in pursuit.

In ancient Ireland there were two names given to the bear; art which is cognate with the Greek arktos and the name of the star Arcturus, and math or mathus which is the origin of the name mac-mathghamhna or the ‘bear-club clan’ of the Mac Mahon’s. In Pagan Irish tradition the bear possessed a unique divinity and was often regarded as a god of the heavens, forming a triplicity in the night sky with Arcturus as the ‘Bear-Guard’ or ‘Fort of the Bears’ and the two smaller bears sleeping around it, called Ursa major and Ursa minor. There is another myth that these sleeping bear gods will arise from their hibernation and come to the aid of their people when called, and this obligation is borne by the bear-tribe of the Mahon’s.

Bears still existed all across Western Europe as late as the fifteenth century, although they had become extinct in Britain by the 10th century. They were frequently caught, imported and used in games and entertainment, for public spectacle. In 16th century Elizabethan England fighting bears were common; famous bears such as ‘Harry Hunks’ and the ‘Great Sackerson’ became national idols, fighting at the Paris gardens in Southwark London every Sunday. By the beginning of the Spanish civil war in 1936 bears had almost completely disappeared in Western Europe, only in the eastern parts of Romania, Hungary, Poland and the Transylvanian mountain ranges do they still live in considerable numbers. In the Apenusi mountains is the ‘Pestera Ursilor’ or Bears-Cave where the 15,000 year old skeletal remains of an ancient family of 140 bears has been discovered. Even when the bear is no longer with us in a physical way, we can always sense its powerful spiritual presence, like the invocation-song of Vainamoinen in the Kalevala:

Autumn weather is slippery, winter days are dark.
My bear, my darling, honey-paws, my beauty,
You still have ground to cover, heath to clamber upon.
Start, splendid one, to go, glory of the forest, to step along.

We cannot fail to recognize the primitive importance of the bear to our sense of being, when our lives as children begin with old tales like ‘Goldilocks.’ In the original oral tradition the young fair girl was a silvered widow, and before that a crafty fox called Scrapefoot… when we dig deep we become wild creatures living in the dark deep forest just like the bears, then we stole their food and now they repay us likewise. Beware; before you scream in fear remember he is just a prince with a fur-coat!

I send my blessings to you all this fall Equinox, and pray your harvest and hibernation during the dark months be a peaceful one, deep, relaxing and refreshing.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Personal Political Soul - Power Struggle

“The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work... when you go to church... when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth” – Morpheus.

I may have appeared in the past as a classical anti-communist emerging from the swampy depths of the McCarthy era; continuing the struggle against political and religious extremism. Not so! I care little about the personal beliefs of any individual, providing of course that their adopted system does not seek to affect the lives of others in a detrimental fashion. The core truth about all modern political and governmental systems is that by their very nature they seek to manipulate the ‘people’ and this is as true of Communism as it is of Capitalism; political leaders of all persuasions maintain their lifestyles, authority, characteristics and dynamic by feeding on the energies of the populace.

I am not a political scientist. My views and opinions are all based on personal experience, and from an early age I disliked the political mainstream. I always viewed the politician as a blood-sucker, a manipulator, a base creature that needed recognition and popular assent to pursue his/her vain-glorious career to boost his/her petty and frivolous ego. Politicians maintain their dysfunctional, Babylonian empires through perfectly repackaged lies and deceptions… until everything begins to fray and fall apart from the burden of the nightmare that is bureaucracy and ever increasingly insane forms of indentured servitude. And so I automatically gravitated toward writers and political philosophers such as Henry David Thoreau;

“That government is best which governs not at all” and “Until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.”

My political allegiances hover (idealistically) between anarchism and a sort of tribal-feudalism. To me, democracy is only the illusion of power, where an individual is inspired to imagine that through the act of submitting a name on a piece of paper they have exercised something profoundly sacred. The government is a government; like a ship on a particular course… it cannot change itself, perhaps the captain can be replaced or exchanged for another, but it is still exactly the same vessel pursuing the originally designated destination. In these sorts of arguments I always seem to end up comparing the supervisory management of the modern world to the ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ (I prefer the Hopkins/Gibson version) and in which, using the analogy of the ship as a micro-cosmic version of the state chaos ensues, the revolution deposes the dictator, as Captain Bligh says;

“The Royal Navy is not a humorous institution, sir, and insubordination is no laughing matter…Now the crew is deeply demoralized and I must accept, as every captain must, the inevitable and theoretical responsibility for that. The actual and immediate responsibility, however, I place on you, my fellow officers who met this crisis with lethargy, impudence and flagrant defiance, publicly uttered. And perhaps for that I am also to blame. I counted on strength of character which you do not possess. However, the cure for our predicament is discipline and I shall apply it with an even hand of course, but most where it is most required.”

Yet even as one power structure is disposed of, another is put in its place… perhaps in this case with one which makes its people destitute exiles on the lost island of their desire. The natural way is not always concerned with order, it need also not concern itself with governance that we as human beings have constructed it. It may perhaps be more construed as a form of anarchy, since much of it is beyond our will and appears to all concerned to be wholly without directorship. I step lightly here, for I am walking through the thickets of religious thought! Omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscience are all terms applied to dictatorial fascism, the ‘1984’ of George Orwell. Of course you are free to express yourself in any way you desire… but, remember that the ‘state’ has wired and tapped your telephones and is now sorting through your personal email account, it is x-raying your letter-box, your name is in a file… just in case you are a terrorist!

I have no answers. I am a no-body. I am deaf and blind. I present no clear or distinct danger to the order. And by the order I mean the notional limitations of doctrines, dogma and laws that we construct in an attempt to explain the universe and our role within it. Such a stance is and of itself very fine… but yet it disallows the very real motion of constant universal change and metamorphosis. The most common and basic experience that one observes in nature is the lack of rigidity, no straight lines, infinite variation, abnormality and a perpetual flux of form and invention. I see subtle connections between these myriad spheres of energy… we are all part of a massive and beautiful web of life, more than anything we must come to the realization that we all have choices regardless of pressure from authority, and a choice is the bed we lie in… even if it is spiraling totally out of control, as Renton in ‘Trainspotting points out;

Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a f……g big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed- interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of f……g fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing sprit- crushing game shows, stuffing f……g junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing you last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, f……d-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life... But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who need reasons when you've got heroin?

So, I choose myself… the complete package wherein lies all imperfections, obscurity, eccentricities, beauty, ecstasy and ugliness… the right to curse every now and again. I don’t need the proverbial ‘nanny’ state to dictate the rules of life to me or/and attempt to shape me into a mold of absolute perfect obedience. But sadly it seems that these days this is the way things are working in the modern world; basic freedoms are fast disappearing like soluble aspirin in a cup of murky water!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Book Review: A History of Pagan Europe by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick.

I had been previously accustomed to reading Pagan history from the viewpoint of Christian literature and writers, who unfortunately portray this faith as cruelly despotic, ignorant, irrational, filled with hatred and prone to bouts of fiery persecution. In choosing this book I was seeking a balanced, informative and historically accurate account of Pagan culture from an objective perspective. I began to read with some trepidation as to whether the book could fulfill my criteria, knowing that Prudence Jones is a respected Pagan academic. However, she clearly remained within the stringent ethics of scientific research and enquiry, carefully laying out her extensive 20 year period of dedicated study into this subject.

The first amazing revelation for me was the authors etymological elucidation of the term ‘Pagan’ and its origins, misuse, and applications throughout history. She forwards a correct working definition in combination with the principal characteristics of its use within an animistic religion. As a modern spiritual movement Paganism is a holistic, earth-centered, Goddess orientated, polytheistic, theophanic religion, having as its foundation the values, ethics, culture, reasoning and rituals of ancient, pre-monotheistic societies. My understanding is that the core principals of Paganism are its capacity for inclusivity and pluralism: essentially possessing the capacity to hold or incorporate almost any philosophy, notion or spiritual concept.

Jones manages to assess the entirety of European Paganism, from the pre-classical civilization in Crete (circa 2800 BCE), through to the Greeks, Etruscans, and the Romans up to the fall of the empire; the incorporation of foreign cults from the east such as the worship of the Egyptian Isis, Mithraism and Christianity. She also considers Islam, the Irish and Celtic world, the Germanic peoples, the Baltic, Russia, and the Balkans to Byzantium. From the high Medieval period (950-1350) her story takes the reader through to the renaissance and the reformation, the great witch hunts (1480-1650), the age of reason and science to the principle romantic revival movements of the 19th century; the Druidic revival at Primrose Hill in London in 1792, the romantic notions of Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) and Neo-Paganism in the 20th century typified by the Order of the Golden Dawn, Theosophy, Wicca and Celtic Druidism.

Several observations and accounts of the author improved and enlightened me. The appraisal of the ancient and classical Greek and Roman pagan faiths were contrary to my previously held understandings and gave a more realistic and accurate picture. My perceptions of ancient Greece and Rome were colored by ideas of empirical, domineering and arrogant cultures. I was surprised to learn of their day to day faith, hearth cultures, belief in spirits, numerous deities and complex organization. I found myself truly inspired by Jones account of the actual mechanics of ancient pagan spiritual practice, this not being a subject I had encountered before. I was also struck by the manner in which political allegiances affected the status of paganism as official religion in many countries, that there was an ‘ebb and flow’ of belief and practice (Christianity did not simply replace the old order); groups or individuals reverting back to their prior religious path or even holding a dual faith. Just as amazing for me was to discover that there were Pagan intellectuals, polemicists, and apologists working to defend their faith against Christian incursions.

As I read on to through the historical accounts I realized that as a religion Paganism has never really died out, being practiced in some form, in some way somewhere in the world. As the Catholic Church spread across western Europe it incorporated many Pagan rituals, the reformation preserved the ancient languages and dialects of people through the translation of the Bible. Jones's conclusion is that Paganism is constantly being reaffirmed, repackaged, in constant revision within the context of establishing itself as a movement concerned with balance, harmony and social equality, a spirituality that is complimentary to rather than at odds with mainstream forms of belief. Modern Neo-Pagans are not concerned with hierarchy or dominance, and it is comforting to know that the voice of a relative minority is leading the path with spirituality married to ecology and humanist concern on a global platform.